To quote History.com — “There’s nothing subtle about historical allusion [to Nazi Germany] in “Star Wars”.”
I would argue that it is common knowledge that George Lucas was heavily influenced by Nazi propaganda in the creation of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, most notably visually. Most of the fictional Empire takes uniform design and terminology from the real life Nazis, and Lucas has stated that the Emperor’s rise to power was meant to directly parallel that of Hitler’s. Some shots in “A New Hope” directly mirror Nazi propaganda films, even in moments focused on the protagonists.
(To grab examples from outside the films, the Star Wars wiki and other websites cite a variety of instances of the Empire’s universe-specific racism and references to propaganda of this nature: “You could trust a human, the Empire said; aliens would always betray you”.)
“Star Wars” has always had very heavy parallels to real-world politics; as that History.com article goes on, it mentions the Vietnam and Cold War, as well as the Knights Templar and Ancient Rome. And this is not something that started and stopped with the original trilogy, either. Remember the prequels detailing a Hitler-esq rise to power for Palpatine, and further that J.J. Abrams’ inspiration for the First Order was taken directly from conversations relating to Nazis fleeing in the post-war time (specifically, “how several Nazis fled to Argentina after the war and …the concept for the First Order came from conversations between the scriptwriters about what would have happened if they had started working together again”).
Now, while the imagery and symbolism of Nazis is present in “Star Wars”, it’s a little harder to argue for actual ideology. Lindsay Ellis already discussed this in depth in a video essay (of which I will be trying to quote from as little as possible), but, in short, Ellis asks if you can import the aesthetics of fascism while tabling fascist ideologies. She argues yes, and that while the Empire’s lack of ideology is appropriate for where the audience enters the story and what the audience subsequently requires, the First Order’s lack of ideology is a little more glaring, though still containing several prominent hallmarks of fascism. Ultimately, ideology is not portrayed, perhaps because fascist ideology is itself too illogical and can be communicated through visual cues rather than direct dialogue.
So, Nazis in “Star Wars”, they’ve been there since the beginning and it really doesn’t seem like they’re going to get edited out. While it is primarily aesthetics that the films take from fascism, the concept of any ideology remains. While not directly Nazis, the parallels are intentional and cannot be ignored.
Why is it, then, that such a significant portion of Star Wars fans dislike when parallels are made between the First Order (specifically Kylo Ren) and fascism, specifically Nazism?
If you talk about Kylo Ren online in relation to fascism (space or real), the odds are high that you’re going to get some very angry people coming up to tell you just how wrong you are. “[You] lack the brain cells to really think rationally about media”, wondering “how is Kylo a Nazi”, and insistence that “its virtue signaling [to] fuck with [people]”. It’s not a new conversation (Force Awakens is nearly four years old now), but one that keeps coming up again and again.
The argument can be split into two sub-arguments, if you will; there’s the debate over how much, if at all, fiction influences reality, and there’s the argument about Kylo Ren. Just, all of him. Everything about him.
To first and briefly discuss the first sub-argument, does fiction influence reality? My answer is yes, and there are decades of various examples I could pull to talk about. Fiction has always had a direct impact on reality, I would argue pretty much relative to how seriously it was framed. For example, “Sharknado” didn’t have the same impact on sharks that “Jaws” did, and that’s because the latter was framed realistically and seriously.
Bringing it back to “Star Wars”, that doesn’t mean I think anyone is going to walk into the theater a liberal and leave a Nazi. That doesn’t mean I think if you enjoy and relate to Kylo Ren as a character, you’re suddenly a Nazi sympathizer. While fiction impacting reality is relative to the tone and framing, I would argue it’s also relative to how we individually interact with the media.
Some people empathize with Kylo Ren and see an Anakin-like tragic figure, others don’t. Both are the result of personal experiences culminating in media consumption. We can find things to like about characters that would be heinous people in the real world, and we can do this without excusing their terribleness (though not all do; we’ll get to that). I personally greatly enjoy Kylo Ren as a character because I enjoy watching his descent into a darker evil; where he started out as this douchebag with a daddy-sized chip on his shoulder, he is now the leader of a giant military fascist force and is a much stronger threat to the protagonists. I enjoy watching him onscreen because he’s just such a piece of shit.
I’ll note, I feel surprisingly alone in this view of Kylo Ren. I know people who just flat-out don’t enjoy his character, and I know people who have had their enjoyment of the character ruined by fandom spaces. I’ve teetered on that edge too. But there is a significant portion of people who look at Kylo Ren and don’t see the antagonist of the sequel trilogy. They see a sweet ‘child’ who’s been manipulated into darkness (a la MCU’s Bucky Barnes), and who only needs to be given a second (or third) (or tenth) chance to be redeemed so that he can fight alongside Rey against the “real” evil.
I promise I’m making an effort to look at this legitimately and critically. Any sarcasm will be blunt and distinguishable from the rest of serious thought.
The desire for a redeemable Kylo Ren is a driving force behind a lot of discourse, including but not being limited to the Nazi-specific discourse we’re here to talk about. Given a situation where you want a character to be redeemed, it makes sense that that same character having ties to space fascism is what we’ll call a bit of a bump in the road. But most of these discussions fall into the “no, fuck you, you’re wrong” pit of the Internet and don’t gain ground for anyone on any side of the argument.
To again quote Ellis:
“Kylo Ren is a fascist figurehead out of spite… The Last Jedi shows that Kylo Ren doesn’t really care about enriching any side, other than whatever side will best empower him.
There is a debate to be had on whether the real-world effect of Nazism should be brought up in these discussions. As a gentile person, I don’t really know what my authority is to decide either way, but I see at least some merit in both; Kylo Ren certainly didn’t murder millions of Jews and gays and disabled people in the 1940's, but he’s definitely playing dress-up like the people that did. And when you import that aesthetic, no matter how much you downplay the specific ideologies, you still import the emotions and real-world effects of the thing you’re fictionalizing.
The question of “is Kylo Ren a Nazi or not” is both nuanced and really isn’t. That Lindsay Ellis quote is a good example of the fact that Kylo doesn’t have ideologies, he only fights for what he wants and uses people in order to get that. His ideologies are his own personal agendas, and space-fascist Hux is never going to be able to get him to do something that doesn’t serve Kylo and Kylo foremost.
However, by aligning with the space-fascists and becoming their figurehead, Kylo is a little thing we call Guilty By Association. It doesn’t matter if you personally don’t vouch for ideology if you’re arm-to-arm with those that do, especially when those people are creating weapons of mass destruction and murdering thousands.
Denying Kylo’s antagonism comes from the desire to see him redeemed, which is a desire that isn’t totally out of thin air. The movies make a point to talk about how tortured he must be, and much of “The Last Jedi” is Rey’s best effort to do to Kylo what she believe Luke did to Darth Vader. The difference being that Vader wasn’t really ever redeemed; a brief editorial on this asks “can one act of kindness (a murder he was planning for years) wash away a lifetime of embracing the dark side?”
While the Star Wars website describes the end of “Return of the Jedi” as Vader’s “redeeming final act”, George Lucas himself argues that “Anakin can’t be redeemed for all the pain and suffering he’s caused. He doesn’t right the wrongs, but he stops the horror,”. So the debate rages on.
The point of this tangent is to say that the discussion of redemption in Star Wars is a subject that everybody has their own opinion on. Some say that by killing Palpatine, Vader was redeemed. Others argue that while he had a redeeming act, Vader himself could not be redeemed by simply stopping the horror on arbitrary will. In relation to Kylo Ren, we will continue to have the same will they/won’t they debate on redemption until “Rise of Skywalker” finally releases, upon which we will then argue about how valid others interpretations are until the end of time.
Kylo’s ties to space fascism are not the only reason why many people are against the idea of a redemption arc for him, but it is a defining reason nonetheless. If we take this Nazi allusion all the way, then its not unreasonable to look at the fictionalized Nazi and not want to see him happy because he arbitrarily chose goodness one day.
Adam Driver, the actor behind Kylo, has talked about how the scariest thing about Kylo Ren is that he 100% believes he is correct in everything he does. That lack of ambiguity in his morality is vital for his role as an antagonist, but it doesn’t make a very easy redemption setup. So, rather than discussing Kylo as a self-obsessed, self-sabotaging rage machine, fandom often opts to discuss Kylo as a manipulated, brainwashed broken boy. Theoretically he can be both, but discussion on this doesn’t ever really entertain that possibility.
The First Order and the Empire are undeniably metaphors for fascism, specifically calling back to Nazi propaganda. They are not real life, actual Nazis, but no one’s argument is that they are “real” Nazis. No one’s argument is that these are real Nazis, and therefore they should take Kylo Ren out of Disneyland and stop selling Stormtrooper Halloween costumes. The time to have the “is having merchandise of the Empire moral?” conversation ended decades ago.
I think that the Lindsay Ellis quote about Kylo only using ideology as a means to a selfish end is the best external characterization of him I’ve seen. Even if he makes an effort to switch sides, lack of remorse (or the denial of existing remorse) makes it difficult for a proper redemption to be conceivably done. You can’t be redeemed for your actions if you don’t feel bad about what you’ve done. While Kylo himself might not be a space-fascist, he is sympathetic to their cause and is willing to associate with them.
Until the trilogy is finished, and even after the fact, the conversation on “is Kylo Ren a Nazi?” is going to keep on happening. At least in terms of symbolism and visual cues, I would argue that yes, Kylo Ren has become a fascist figurehead of the First Order; whether or not he personally agrees with the Order doesn’t matter.
If you want Kylo to be redeemed ( #Bendemption ), that’s something you’re entitled to. But you can’t ignore the allusion and symbolism surrounding his character and say calling him a Nazi-equivalent is completely unfounded. To look at the First Order- and at Kylo Ren- and notice the allusion to Nazism is basic knowledge of visual shorthand, literally what it means to be “rationally thinking about media”.
Kylo Ren is not Bucky Barnes, he was not brought into “badness” in the same way, and he seems to have no remorse for his actions when, arguably, under “greater” evil influence. You can’t argue the two characters as one in the same because one has fully renounced his prior offenses and works to distance himself from what he’s done, while the other shows no remorse and continues to do wrong under the assumption that he is right.
In this discourse, remember that “it’s only a movie” is not a valid response to criticisms about Kylo Ren and the First Order. Fiction has a long documented history of effecting the way we perceive reality and ourselves, and to claim it doesn’t is ignorance. Fiction cannot be divorced from our reality, no matter how fantastical the fiction itself is.
Of course people are going to call the First Order and its various associates Nazis — they are Nazis. That’s the whole point.
Postscript (9/6/19): This article became way more widespread than I think I ever expected, and while I got backlash from exactly the audience I was anticipating, I do feel the need to add some notes.
- I do not intend to conflate fascism with Nazism. All Nazis are fascists but not all fascists are Nazis; I’m aware of this, aware that conflating the two has become a general problem, and I don’t intend to feed into that confusion. My invocation of Nazism comes from the creators’ constant use of it. My sources for this are numerous and linked throughout this article, and I did not just throw the term in lightly. However, I’m aware that its use has upset some Jewish readers and for that I’m deeply sorry for any distress I have caused them.
- Already stated but with the need to stress: I do not think these characters are real Nazis. They are not comparable to real Nazis. I do not think anyone who loves these characters are Nazis. This is an article about the effect of specific allusion in Star Wars and why fans ignore it, not a bizarre smear campaign.
- If you feel the need to contact me on Twitter about this article, do so as an adult. And do not misgender me. Disagreement over an opinion about a fictional character does not give you license to be transphobic. The mute and block buttons are there for a reason and I’m going to be using them when I need to.
Thank you to all who read this, regardless of your opinion on the matter.